Feminism in Literature Essay - Women in the 19th Century

Women in the 19th Century


European and American women in the nineteenth century lived in an age characterized by gender inequality. At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights that are now taken for granted in western countries: they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household. Lower-class women often did work outside the home, but usually as poorly-paid domestic servants or laborers in factories and mills.

The onset of industrialization, urbanization, as well as the growth of the market economy, the middle class, and life expectancies transformed European and American societies and family life. For most of the eighteenth century through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, families worked together, dividing farming duties or work in small-scale family-owned businesses to support themselves. With the rapid mercantile growth, big business, and migration to larger cities after 1830, however, the family home as the center of economic production was gradually replaced with workers who earned their living outside the home. In most instances, men were the primary "breadwinners" and women were expected to stay at home to raise children, to clean, to cook, and to provide a haven for returning husbands. Most scholars agree that the Victorian Age was a time of escalating gender polarization as women were expected to adhere to a rigidly defined sphere of domestic and moral duties, restrictions that women increasingly resisted in the last two-thirds of the century.

Scholarly analysis of nineteenth-century women has included examination of gender roles and resistance on either side of the Atlantic, most often focusing on differences and similarities between the lives of women in the United States, England, and France. While the majority of these studies have concentrated on how white, middle-class women reacted to their assigned domestic or private sphere in the nineteenth century, there has also been interest in the dynamics of gender roles and societal expectations in minority and lower-class communities. Although these studies can be complementary, they also highlight the difficulty of making generalizations about the lives of women from different cultural, racial, economic, and religious backgrounds in a century of steady change.

Where generalizations can be made, however, "the woman question," as it was called in debates of the time, has been seen as a tendency to define the role of women in terms of private domesticity. Most often, depictions of the lives of nineteenth-century women, whether European or American, rich or poor, are portrayed in negative terms, concentrating on their limited sphere of influence compared to that of men from similar backgrounds. In some cases, however, the private sphere of nineteenth-century women had arguably more positive images, defining woman as the more morally refined of the two sexes and therefore the guardian of morality and social cohesion. Women were able to use this more positive image as a means for demanding access to public arenas long denied them, by publicly emphasizing and asserting the need for and benefits of a more "civilized" and "genteel" influence in politics, art, and education.

The same societal transformations that were largely responsible for women's status being defined in terms of domesticity and morality also worked to provoke gender consciousness and reform as the roles assigned women became increasingly at odds with social reality. Women on both sides of the Atlantic, including Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Power Cobbe, both expressed and influenced the age's expectations for women. Through their novels, letters, essays, articles, pamphlets, and speeches these and other nineteenth-century women portrayed the often conflicting expectations imposed on them by society. These women, along with others, expressed sentiments of countless women who were unable to speak, and brought attention and support to their concerns. Modern critical analyses often focus on the methods used by women to advance their cause while still maintaining their delicate balance of propriety and feminine appeal by not "threatening" men, or the family unit.

Representative Works

Lydia Becker

Woman's Suffrage Journal [editor] (journal) 1870s

Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon

"A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations" (essay) 1854

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre (novel) 1847

Villette (novel) 1853

Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights (novel) 1847

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper

"Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race" (essay) 1886

Frederick Douglass

"Why I Became a Woman's Rights Man" (essay) 1881

George Eliot

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

Charles Fourier

"Degradation of Women in Civilization" (essay) 1808

Margaret Fuller

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1845

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton (novel) 1848

Cranford (novel) 1853

Ruth (novel) 1853

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

"Women's Political Future" (essay) 1893

Victoria Earle Matthews

"The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman" (essay) 1897

John Stuart Mill

The Subjection of Women (philosophy) 1869

Caroline Norton

The Natural Right of A Mother to the Custody of her Child (essay) 1837

Emma Peterson

Women's Union Journal [editor] (journal) 1870s

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention Speech" (speech) 1848

"Solitude of Self" (speech) 1892

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin (novel) 1852

William Thompson and Anna Wheeler

Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the other Half, Men, To Retain them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery (pamphlet) 1825

Sojourner Truth

"Colored Men Will Be Masters Over the Women" (speech) 1867

Charlotte Yonge

Heir of Redclyffe (novel) 1853

English Woman's Journal [Englishwoman's Review] (journal) 1857

Primary Sources

Charles Fourier (Essay Date 1808)

SOURCE: Fourier, Charles. "Degradation of Women in Civilization." Theorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinees Generales, pp. 131-33. Paris, France: n.p., 1841-48.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1808, Fourier argues that French and English women are treated little better than slaves and that social progress in both countries depends on granting women greater freedoms and rights.

Is there a shadow of justice to be seen in the fate that has befallen women? Is not a young woman a mere piece of merchandise displayed for sale to the highest bidder as exclusive property? Is not the consent she gives to the...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Nellie Weeton (Journal/Letter Dates 26 January 1810 And 15 September 1810)

SOURCE: Weeton, Nellie. "The Trials of an English Governess." In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, p. 343. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following journal entry and letter, written in 1810 and originally published in Journal of a Governess in 1936, Weeton recounts several incidents during her tenure as a governess.

[Nellie Weeton's journal entry for Jan. 26, 1810]

The comforts of which I have deprived myself in...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Emma Willard (Address Date 1819)

SOURCE: Willard, Emma. "An Address to the Public, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education." An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. Middlebury, Conn.: J. W. Copeland, 1819.

In the following address, Willard notes the benefits of improved education for women.

The object of this Address, is to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Parisian Garment Workers (Petition Date August 1848)

SOURCE: Parisian Garment Workers. “The Adult Woman: Work.” In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, p. 330. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following petition, written to the Parisian government in 1848, women workers who were losing work to contractors outside of France appeal to lawmakers to intercede on their behalf.


Please consider the request of some poor working women. The convents and the prisons take...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Speech Date 1848)

SOURCE: Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention Speech (abridged)." In Returning to Seneca Falls: The First Woman's Rights Convention & Its Meaning for Men & Women Today, edited by Bradford Miller, pp. 172-77. Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1995.

In the following speech, delivered at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Cady Stanton argues that there is no biblical or natural justification for the subjugation of women, and that women must organize to overturn unjust laws and customs that leave them without legal rights or political representation.

I should feel...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)

The Sibyl (Letter Date February 1857)

SOURCE: The Sibyl. "Short Hair and Short Dresses." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, p. 145. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.

In the following letter, published in The Sibyl in February 1857, the unknown writer, E. E. S, champions The Sibyl for supporting the wearing of short hair and dresses. The editor offers a response that admonishes outdated fashions and traditions.

Waynesville, Ill., Jan. 26, 1857.

Dear Madam.—Enclosed I sent you $2, for which please send numbers of THE SIBYL to those I mention...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Louisa Bastian, Mary Hamelton, And Anna Long (Petition Date July 1862)

SOURCE: Bastian, Louisa, Mary Hamelton, and Anna Long. "The Adult Woman: Work." In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, p. 330. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following petition, sent to lawmakers during the American Civil War, seamstresses ask the government to intervene against unfair labor practices.

We the undersigned formerly doing sewing for the United States Arsenal at Philadelphia most respectfully remonstrate against the action of Col....

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Harriet H. Robinson (Report Date 1883)

SOURCE: Robinson, Harriet H. "Early Factory Labor in New England." In Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Fourteenth Annual Report, pp. 380-92. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1883.

In the following report, Robinson describes the experiences of women factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In what follows, I shall confine myself to a description of factory life in Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1832 to 1848, since, with that phase of Early Factory Labor in New England, I am the most familiar—because I was a part of it. In 1832, Lowell was little more than a factory village. Five "corporations" were started, and the...

(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Essay Date 1893)

SOURCE: Watkins Harper, Frances Ellen. "Woman's Political Future." In With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women, edited by Shirley Wilson Logan, pp. 43-46. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1893, Harper argues that the influence of women in American political life is necessary to bring an end to the many injustices that plague the nation.

If before sin had cast its deepest shadows or sorrow had distilled its bitterest tears, it was true that it was not good for man to be alone, it is no less true, since the...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)